Thursday, May 27, 2010

PepsiCo's latest "local" ad campaign for Lay's reveals that potato chips come from... potatoes!

In case potato chips lovers had no idea where their favorite salty snacks came from, America's largest chip maker has launched a new ad campaign clearing up the confusion once and for all.

As explained by the New York Times this week (in the advertising section, not food, and rightly so) the ads appear to stem from recent concern over the high salt content and other nutritional challenges of the likes of Lay's. To quote columnist Stuart Elliot, the campaign "is intended to help consumers think of Lay's as a food rather than a snack" and is "centered on farmers who grow potatoes for the maker of Lay's, the Frito-Lay unit of PepsiCo."

Not to miss out on the current "love your local farmer" movement, the campaign features ads of regional farmers in local markets, along with an online "Happiness Exhibit" photo gallery at

The Times describes why the stakes are so high. Lay's is PepsiCo's third best-selling product, second only to the company's Pepsi-Cola and Mountain Dew brands. Total Lay's sales topped $2 billion last year. Yet, growth is the key to continued success, and according to the Times:
Sales growth for Lay’s had slowed to less than 1 percent from 2005 to 2007, raising concern among executives at Frito-Lay as well as PepsiCo.
Surveys revealed that Frito-Lay had a perception problem on its hands. Apparently, a third of respondents thought the ingredients were "not real potatoes." That's when the marketing machine sprung into action. New ads were designed to convey the "three simple ingredients" in the main variety of Lay’s, called Lay’s Classic: potatoes, "all-natural" sunflower oil and "a dash of salt."

The addition of farmers to the ad campaign is an aim, says Gannon Jones, vice president for portfolio marketing at Frito-Lay, "to put the hometown face on it, and the hometown face is our farmers."

How touching. Funny the company didn't put the "hometown face" of the local factory workers who pulverize the potatoes, and then douse the mixture in salt (more than a dash) along with many gallons of ("all-natural") oil. Or the other numerous local factory workers who must work very hard turning those "simple ingredients" into fried chips. Then there are even more local factory workers on the assembly line where all of those many chips are put into bags. Hmmm.

Oh wait, they also left out the local factory workers who put the bags into boxes, seal the boxes and get them ready to leave the factories. And who can forget all the local truckers who have to drive the big trucks to the regional distribution centers before they can be delivered by yet other local truck drivers to all those local stores. Nope, just gonna focus on the local farmers. Wonder why?

I thought this local angle sounded familiar. Indeed, when Frito-Lay first tried to go the "Local Lay's" route last year, there was plenty of skepticism to go around. (See for example, Frito-Lay Embraces Local Movement, But Movement Does Not Embrace Frito-Lay.)

Also, I was interviewed for this article in Ad Age at the start of the campaign and called it disingenuous then. (That was an understatement.) Here's what else I had to say about it:
Let's be honest: It's processed junk food. It's just companies scrambling to save themselves as they see the trend happening as people are waking up and getting a clue that maybe packaged food isn't good for you.
Then I got the last word in that story:
They have factories all over the country so they're locally processed? Give me a break. That's hilarious. You might as well say 'I rolled this cigarette in my backyard so it's local.'
Sorry for recycling old quotes, but if it still works, why not?

Thanks to my esteemed colleague Marion Nestle who pointed me to this story. Her clever name for it? Farmwashing!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wondering where in the world Big Food will put 1.5 trillion calories?

Last week, 16 major packaged food companies "pledged" to Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign that they would somehow remove 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply by the end of 2015. As I wrote here, there are many reasons to be skeptical about this announcement. Since my post others have chimed in with their own doubts. For example, see business writer Melanie Warner's excellent analysis, Food Industry's Calorie Reduction Pledge: Smart Marketing, but Dumb Nutrition.

I also had this nagging feeling that even if these food companies were to honor their promise, those calories would not just disappear, rather they would likely just turn up in other countries. Sure enough, with the ink barely dry on the calorie-reduction agreement, in came a press release from one of the most important pledgers - PepsiCo.

PepsiCo proudly announced that it's investing $2.5 billion in China, on top of the $1 billion the company has already spent there since 2008. The soft drink and snack food giant intends to build a dozen new food and beverage plants, to add to the current 27 facilities.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this announcement, made at the Shanghai Expo, indicates stepped-up competition with Coca-Cola, who announced its own $2 billion investment in China late last year. (Both companies are major sponsors of the Expo.) WSJ explains why Coke and Pepsi are so eager to find fertile ground:
Both beverage giants are expanding aggressively in China, India and Russia, among other emerging markets, where growth is much faster than in the U.S. Soft-drink sales have declined for five years in the U.S.
"Emerging markets" is corporate-speak for developing nations. While sales slump here at home, PepsiCo is seeing double-digit growth overseas:
Its international business boosted first-quarter results, with its Asia, Middle East and Africa unit posting 13% growth in snack volume and 10% in beverage volume, largely because of growth in China and India.
Meanwhile Coca-Cola, never to be outdone by PepsiCo in the chutzpah department, quietly announced, the week prior to the Big Food White House Pledge, that they were investing $300 million in Pakistan. The plan is to build two more (adding to the current six) manufacturing plants in that country. This is another direct challenge to PepsiCo, which already has a major presence in the Middle East. (A friend who is currently teaching at Lahore University of Management Sciences tells me that students there eat in the "Pepsi Dining Center.")

One article explains Coca-Cola's motives: "Pakistan is a growing market. It has a population of 170 million and majority of them are youngsters," said Rizwan U Khan, Coca-Cola’s country manager for Pakistan and Afghanistan. "We view this country has a favourable place for expansion."

The majority are youngsters, of course, since youth is the optimum time to get more loyal customers. Funny how we didn't hear any such honest assessment coming out of Big Food last week at the White House. They were on their best behavior there. And while PepsiCo previously endorsed the First Lady's Let's Move campaign, it seems Big Food only cares about childhood obesity in America. Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Chinese kids, who cares?

Of course, the cigarette industry wrote this playbook years ago. Once regulations started becoming inhospitable in the United States, Big Tobacco just stepped up their marketing efforts overseas, especially in the developing world and as a result, smoking is an international epidemic. To quote Dr. Margaret Chan, World Health Organization director-general:
If Big Tobacco is in retreat in some parts of the world, it is on the march in others. As we all know, the tobacco industry is ruthless, devious, rich and powerful.
Just replace the word tobacco with food in that quote, and you will see our future.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why humane meat is an oxymoron - the Lyman v. Niman debate

Last night I attended an entertaining debate between ex-cattle rancher turned vegan Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy, and Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkshop and wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman. The event was co-sponsored by VegNews Magazine and Earth Island Institute and held in the impressive David Brower Center in Berkeley. (I know, where else?)

The subtitle of the event asked the question, Can you be a "good environmentalist" and still eat meat?

Full disclosure: this is not an objective review of what transpired. While I don't tend to put it front and center in my writing these days, I have been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for close to 15 years. My own thinking has evolved over the years and I now advocate more broadly for a mostly plant-based, whole-foods diet, which no educated person can argue with nutritionally. While I realize it may not harm your health to eat a small amount of meat here and there, I have decided for ethical reasons not to do so. I decided to write this post because much of what I heard last night was not adequately addressed by the speakers and I want to add my own thoughts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Big Food pledge placates White House - Who needs policy when you've got promises?

You've got to hand it to the food industry. They certainly know how to get the attention of the White House just when they need it most. As announced today by Michelle Obama herself, the nation's leading food companies have made yet another pledge, this one in the form of an agreement signed with the Partnership for a Healthier America, an off-shoot of the First Lady's Let's Move campaign.

Mrs. Obama said that 16 corporations accounting for up to 25 percent of the American food supply chain would trim a total of one trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. Sounds impressive, but I am not really sure exactly what it means. Trim calories, from what? OK, to be fair, here's how the press release attempts to explain it:
Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goal by developing and introducing lower-calorie options, changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products, or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products.
First off, who is the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation? Good question, certainly sounds official, but a quick perusal of the website reveals a virtual who's who of Big Food: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and of course, PepsiCo, whose CEO Indra Nooyi serves as vice chair. (Kellogg's CEO got the top spot and was at today's White House briefing, see leadership.)

And you gotta love this mission statement: "Our mission is to try to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015." Try to help? Reduce? Especially? Sounds pretty lame. But I digress.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Big Food Goes North to Buy Out Dietitians of Canada Too

Some things in Canada just seem so much more sane than here in the states. Better (any) health care of course is the most touted reason to move north of the border.

If you're like me and many others fed up with the American Dietetic Association's ongoing affiliation with the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald's, (see previous post and comments) you might wonder if this insane hypocrisy is something unique to America. You might think that dietitians in a country humane enough to provide its citizens with decent health care would steer clear of Big Food influence over its nutrition professionals. I am sorry to report that this is not the case.

As recently described in painful detail by a Canadian dietitian blogger (Nutrition Nibbles) Sybil Hebert, the ADA equivalent trade group, Dietitians of Canada (DC) "partners with industry, including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Monsanto, and Nestle." As a new member, Ms. Hebert was not happy to learn this troubling information, and inspired by Marion Nestle's call to ADA members on the same topic, decided to make her distaste known with a letter of her own.

Her impressive missive details numerous examples of industry partnerships such as raking in over $200,000 dollars from corporate sponsorships, including the pharmaceutical industry. She concludes with this reasonable request to the organization's leadership:
Board of Directors, as long as DC continues to align itself with food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, and rely on these corporations for funding, it will never be respected, and neither will I. As a member of the purported “nation-wide voice of dietitians,” I hope my voice, and my concerns, are heard, and that DC will carefully review its advertising and sponsorship policies to recognize the many conflicts of interest that exist, and their consequences, and take steps to minimize them in order to restore DC’s credibility.
Well said. I've heard from many dietitians in the U.S. who are no longer members of the ADA for this very reason, that the organization cannot be respected as long as it is compromised.

Unfortunately, the DC leadership has not taken too kindly to Ms. Hebert's request, and in particular to the fact that she has posted her letter on her blog. Despite (or maybe because of) the many comments in support, Ms. Hebert has received more than one email asking her to take down the post. 

What is the leadership of Dietitians of Canada so afraid of? It's certainly no secret that the organization partners with industry. It only took me a minute to find the program for DC's upcoming annual conference in Montreal, which lists among its sponsors: General Mills, Danone, Unilever, PepsiCo, and a plethora of drug companies. In just one day you can attend the Kellogg Breakfast, followed by the Kellogg Nutrition Symposium, and then take a Kellogg break. Maybe the Dietitians of Canada should consider changing its name to Dietitians of Kellogg. Then again, maybe that would make all those other corporate sponsors too upset.

This isn't the first time the trade group has been called out for its conflict of interest. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is a family doctor in Ottawa who has wondered (among other conflicts) what the heck the Dietitians of Canada was doing putting out a joint press release last year with the Dairy Farmers of Canada making nutrition recommendations that essentially served as a "milk advertisement" (his words).

Professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada must renounce their corporate affiliations and stop taking money from the very companies that are undermining their own members' ability to do help people eat right. Until they do so, these groups risk becoming little more than a tool of corporate interests, which is exactly what Big Food wants.

We need more dietitians like Sybil Hebert taking a public stand. Please post comments both here and on her blog in support and if you're a member of either the American Dietetic Association or Dietitians of Canada voice your concerns directly to the leadership. If you're no longer a member, tell them why you left. Together, our voices can make a difference.